PHOENIX – The Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix stripped a major hospital of its affiliation with the church Tuesday because of a surgery that ended a woman's pregnancy to save her life.
Bishop Thomas Olmsted called the 2009 procedure an abortion and said St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center — recognized internationally for its neurology and neurosurgery practices — violated ethical and religious directives of the national Conference of Catholic Bishops.
"In the decision to abort, the equal dignity of mother and her baby were not both upheld," Olmsted said at a news conference announcing the decision. "The mother had a disease that needed to be treated. But instead of treating the disease, St. Joseph's medical staff and ethics committee decided that the healthy, 11-week-old baby should be directly killed."
Linda Hunt, president of St. Joseph's, said doctors performed a necessary procedure on a patient who was getting worse by the minute and was in imminent danger of death.
"If we are presented with a situation in which a pregnancy threatens a woman's life, our first priority is to save both patients. If that is not possible, we will always save the life we can save, and that is what we did in this case," Hunt said. "Morally, ethically, and legally, we simply cannot stand by and let someone die whose life we might be able to save."
St. Joseph's does not receive direct funding from the church, but in addition to losing its Catholic endorsement, the 697-bed hospital will no longer be able to celebrate Mass and must remove the Blessed Sacrament from its chapel.
Hunt said the hospital will comply with Olmsted's decision but it will continue to operate under Catholic guidelines.
"We will continue in the Catholic heritage through words and deeds," she said. "We have removed the Blessed Sacrament from our tabernacle, we will have no Masses, but priests will see patients. We are still a hospital."
The woman who underwent the procedure is in her 20s and had a history of abnormally high blood pressure when she learned of her pregnancy. After she was admitted to the hospital with worsening symptoms, doctors determined her risk of death was nearly 100 percent.
The hospital's ethics team concluded the pregnancy could be ended under the church's ethical directives because "the goal was not to end the pregnancy but save the mother's life," the hospital said.
Olmsted's announcement came after months of talks between the Diocese, the hospital and the hospital's parent company, Catholic Healthcare West.
Dr. Charles Alfano, chief medical officer at the hospital and an obstetrician there, said Olmsted was asking the impossible from the hospital.
"Specifically the fact that he requested we admit the procedure performed was an abortion and that it was a violation of the ethical and religious directives and that we would not perform such a procedure in the future," he said. "We could not agree to that. We acted appropriately."
Olmsted said the talks eroded his confidence about St. Joseph's and Catholic Healthcare West's commitment to the church's ethical and religious directives. "They have not addressed in an adequate manner the scandal caused by the abortion," he said.
He said he recently learned that Catholic Healthcare West also is responsible for contraceptive counseling, voluntary sterilization, and other practices he said violate the ethical and religious directives.
Hunt, who also is the service area president of Catholic Healthcare West of Arizona, said the hospital had to offer such services under Arizona's Medicaid program, but did so through a third party.
St. Joseph's is home to the Barrow Neurological Institute, where musician Bret Michaels was treated after he suffered a brain hemorrhage in April. The institute recently established the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center.